People Like You
Contemporary Figures of Personalisation

People Like You

Personalisation is changing many parts of contemporary life, from the way we shop and communicate to the kinds of public services we access. We are told that purchases, experiences, treatments, and interactions can all be customised to an optimum.

As a group of scientists, sociologists, anthropologists and artists, we are exploring how personalisation actually works. What are optimum outcomes? Do personalising practices have unintended consequences?

We argue that personalisation is not restricted to a single area of life and that personalised practices develop, interact and move between different sites and times. The project is split into four areas: personalised medicine and care; data science; digital cultures; interactive arts practices.

People Like You: Contemporary Figures of Personalisation is funded by a Collaborative Award in the Medical Humanities and Social Sciences from The Wellcome Trust, 2018–2022.


Yael Gerson

23 June 2020

As the title of our project suggests, we are looking at different aspects of personalisation. Recently, I have noticed a new kind of ‘personalised’ advert, which is for personalised hair care. Curiosity got the better of me, and one day I clicked on the advert for ‘hair care personalised’, which instantly took me to a quiz asking me all sorts of difficult questions: is my hair wavy or curly (I know it’s not straight), is my scalp dry, what hair goals do I have, etcetera. I found myself asking friends and family the answers to these questions, and it was interesting to hear that there wasn’t a unified consensus. This got me thinking about what I find problematic about such notions of personalisation, in particular the idea that we have a singular, unified identity.





Function of Beauty, formula for personalised hair care

Recently, I was sitting in the back of an Uber, when the driver asked me where I was from. Mexico, I replied. Well, he said, I would have said any place except that. When I asked him why, he said he didn’t know why, but it was just instinctive. This got me thinking about times when my sense of self has clashed with how others perceive me. Let me illustrate this. It was 2008, and I was two years into my PhD when I got my first job as an associate lecturer in Sociology, leading seminar discussions with undergraduates. One week we were discussing ideas around race, more specifically the social construction of race, and in particular the categorisation of people as either ‘white’ or ‘black’. I stood in front of the class and said, “so, for example, when you see me you say…”, and the class responded “black.”  I was shocked – I had always thought of myself as white, and even my Mexican passport stated that my skin colour was ‘white’. Needless to say, this led to a very interesting class discussion; what stayed with me was the moment of shock I experienced, why had I felt so surprised?

bare Minerals Made 2-Fit foundation

Stuart Hall has already pointed to the problem of thinking of identity as an accomplished fact; rather, he said, we should think of identity as “a ‘production’, which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation” (Hall, 1990). Identities are inscribed into bodies through everyday practices making them almost invisible, and in many ways feeling ‘fixed’. For me, moving countries de-stabilised this fixedness, and gave me a different sense of self. People of mixed heritage will have probably experienced similar moments, moments of not fitting into categories, of being in-between. It is more in the not-fitting-into categories than-the-fitting into categories that I identify with. I am thus always uneasy when faced with quizzes and promises of personalisation done through AI. When it comes to foundation, will an app be better at determining my skin tone than the person at the beauty counter; will I be able to judge my hair and scalp type more than a hairdresser? How can we ‘know’ something that is always becoming (Butler, 2001)? In the context of beauty, AI is presented as an objective tool that will ‘see’ you – your hair type, your skin tone – without judgement. The danger here is that AI enabled technologies will (re)produce a certain fixedness of racial and gendered identities, and that these will be adopted by consumers as ‘objective’ and ‘true’.

What strikes me in the experiences narrated above, is the ineffability of identity; and so, if I cannot express what my identity ‘is’, then we cannot afford to think that AI-powered personalised beauty products are not political.





Day S., Lury, C.

Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life, 2016

This chapter argues that tracking involves an increasingly significant and diverse set of techniques in relation to the ongoing transformation of relations between observer and observed, and between observers. These developments include not only the proliferation of individual sensing devices associated with a growing variety of platforms, but also the emergence of new data infrastructures that pool, scale, and link data in ways that promote their repurposing. By means of examples ranging from genes and currencies to social media and the disappearance of an airplane, it is suggested that practices of tracking are creating new public-private distinctions in the dynamic problem space resulting from the analytics that pattern these data. These new distinctions are linked to changing forms of personhood and changing relations between market and state, economy and society.

Day, Sophie E. and Lury, Celia. 2016. Biosensing: Tracking Persons. In: Dawn Nafus, ed. Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, pp. 43-66. ISBN 978-0-262-52875-7 [Book Section]